Every year, the long Labor Day weekend rolls across the American landscape, spurring millions to fire up their consecrated backyard pyres for the purpose of sacrificing vacuum-sealed mammal and poultry parts — all to celebrate getting a few days off from a job they’re lucky to even have. Indeed, Labor Day has now become a largely hollow observance of late-summer soft hedonism; a chance for Americans to kick back and grasp a few days worth of respite from the soul-devouring drudgery that defines the majority of their time on earth.
Labor Day’s transformation — from a day honoring the sacrifices of the Labor Movement into a rare respite from the relentless capitalist domination of human life — speaks to the totalitarian grip that the consumer-based market leviathan now holds on the collective American body.
The capitalist civil religion has wormed itself into every fabric of modern life to the point where a national holiday “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” is now little more than an example of how market culture has commodified time itself. If the Labor Movement gave America the weekend, then the market, in its supreme dominance, has turned the weekend into a commodity to be purchased via cookouts and retail “Labor Day Sales” — subtle reminders of capitalism’s hegemony in an American society that has degraded, criminalized, and even obliterated the very legitimacy of labor.
Labor Day emerged out of the late-19th century, a time when demonstrating for workers’ rights could get you killed by the power of private industry and a government that existed to serve industry’s every whim. By the 1880s, American workers had been fighting for various labor rights for decades, and among the most import was a shorter work day.
In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (that’s right UNIONS) orchestrated a two-year national campaign in favor of the eight-hour work day, a time-frame that you still likely work today. In 1886, some 400,000 American workers participated in what eventually amounted to 1,500 separate strikes in support of the eight-hour day, more than any previous year in U.S. history. The strikes resulted in 42,000 workers getting the eight-hour day.
In Chicago, a center of labor radicalism where socialist and anarchist movements thrived, 80,000 workers marched for the shorter work day. The Windy City’s police forces, however, who had their lips firmly planted on the posteriors of the city’s industrial tycoons, made labor activism a life-or-death struggle. In May of 1886, strikes at the McCormick Reaper Works farm machinery plant exploded into police beatings that left two workers dead. In response to the violence, workers organized a May 4 protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Just as the meeting began to wrap, however, some anti-labor jerk launched a bomb into the crowd. Amidst the chaos, police opened fire. When the dust and smoke dissipated, 50 people were wounded and ten lay dead.
This type of violence, a common 19th-century response to labor advocacy, eventually led a New Jersey machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York named Matthew Maguire to propose a holiday honoring the contributions that labor made to American society. Maguire suggested a festival-style demonstration, inspired by an annual labor festival he witnessed in Toronto, Canada. New York City became the sight of the first official Labor Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday gradually spread to other cities and states, and the first Monday in September became its official day of observance.
The animating spirit of Labor Day was — and remains — a declaration of individual rights and human dignity in the face of capitalism’s relentless push towards automation, dehumanization, and unchecked private tyranny. The holiday is a proclamation of every person’s right to better their material and spiritual conditions unencumbered by the demands of powerful private interests who seek to reduce the human condition to a zombified state of machine-like drudgery in the name of the vacuous acquisition of consumer goods and the satiation of the stock markets.
Few documents captured Labor Day’s spirit better than Moral Code of the Noble and Holy Union of the Knights of Labor, one of 19th-century America’s most influential labor organizations. Nine Philadelphia tailors founded the Knights in 1869, and their brilliantly worded Code outlined what American workers were fighting against. “What did thy masters promise for thee?” the code asked rhetorically, referring to the demands the “masters” of capitalist industry made on a worker, which were as follows:
That I should renounce the comforts of life through working for less wages…that I must not in any way try to better my condition, but be content to work at any price which they think proper to give…that I must bear patiently the insults of all that are put in authority over me.
The Knights of Labor rejected these capitalist demands and instead affirmed workers’ rights to a shorter work day, higher wages, and the even more radical right to be treated like individual, sentient human beings with dreams, aspirations, and a spiritual core — all qualities that capitalism had no right to snuff out with its obsessive genuflection to profit margins.
The Knights’ recognition of the need to strengthen workers’ rights became all-too-clear in July, 1892, at the Carnegie Steel Homestead Plant near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Homestead plant was home to the country’s strongest union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers (AA).
The plant’s manager, Henry Clay Frick, was one of the biggest anti-union sleazeballs in U.S. history. Under the authority of his equally anti-union boss, Andrew Carnegie, Frick tried to take advantage of a strike over wages and work rules to close the plant and reopen it with non-union workers. After the Union called a strike, Frick hired 3,000 Pinkerton private guards to open fire on the strikers, ushering in a battle that killed nine workers and seven Pinkertons. To finish the job, Frick, with the help of Pennsylvania’s governor, brought in the state militia (you know, the kind of well-regulated militia that’s supposed to stand for freedom) to break up the strikers. The plant soon reopened, and the battle permanently crippled the AA.
Two years later, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to smash striking workers at Chicago’s Pullman Sleeping Car company. For a week straight, the Pullman site became a war zone. After the federal troops finally broke the strike, 34 people lay dead. Six days after the strike ended, President Cleveland signed a law making Labor Day a national holiday.
The history of anti-labor violence in America makes the contemporary criminalization of labor even more galling.
In March, 2011, Paul LePage, Maine’s virulently anti-union, Tea-Bagging, wingnut governor removed a labor history mural from Maine’s Department of Labor building. A LePage spokesmonkey claimed that the mural was “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals and some business owners complained.” The mural went back up 22 months later — and then LePage won reelection as governor.
On Labor Day 2012, Eric Cantor, the Virginia GOP congresscritter who since lost re-election to an even more right-wing troglodyte, tweeted that, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Because nothing epitomises a celebration of labor like a celebration of capital. And in March 2015, Scott Walker — the proto-fascist stooge governor of Wisconsin who sailed to three-straight election victories on a wave of oil-soaked Koch brothers greenbacks while successfully crushing his state’s public unions — signed into a law a bill that made Wisconsin the nation’s 25th “Right to Work (For Less) state.
The conservative-led attempt to delegitimize the radical history of American labor and utterly dilute labor’s influence in a contemporary economic order where capital wields historically unheard-of levels of power makes Labor Day the most vital and important of all national holidays. Conservatism has always been, and remains, the ideological voice of the powerful and the privileged, and conservatives won’t stop until the idea of labor in America means nothing more than toiling for a pittance wage in conditions completely dictated by employers who maintain total dominance over employees and who have mobilized the legal arm of the state in the service of generating unlimited and unrestricted private profits.
The transformation of Labor Day from a national holiday that celebrates workers’ building of the American nation into a mere opportunity to have a weekend off and shop for deals on “Retail Sales Day” was intentional, and it serves a deeply ideological purpose. America’s right-wing culture hopes that workers will, of their own volition, acquiesce to lower wages, non-existent job security, and union-busting, all in the name of some vaguely defined notion of “freedom.” But the “freedom” that comes with the conservative assault on labor is nothing less than the freedom to smite someone else just to make yourself feel better.
When American workers divide amongst themselves, they’re following the right-wing script that says workers MUST not demand more than their superiors deem fit to give. While the Knights of Labor fought against “the insults of all that are put in authority,” the right wing promotes the worship of authority. Conservatives contend that the only way to get ahead in the world is to pull someone else down, not help lift them up. The state of labor in conservative America is a state that equates bowing like feudal serfs before “job-creators” with the “freedom to work.”
The past struggles of America’s labor movement demonstrate just how much blood went into creating things like an eight-hour day, weekends, and the minimum wage. These aren’t things that Americans ought to take for granted while maxing out their credit cards on a panzer-sized backyard grill at Walmart’s Labor Day Weekend Sale.
In an 1857 speech titled “If There is no Struggle, There is no Progress,” the brilliant abolitionist and philosopher Frederick Douglass noted that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” This is as true today as it was at Haymarket Square in 1886.